Minnesota Duluth has made a mid-season addition to its roster while on holiday break, but not to the banged-up blue line.
The two-time defending national champion Bulldogs are welcoming a 15th forward in Victoria, Minn.,-native Ben Almquist. He’ll begin skating with the team right away when it returns to the ice on Thursday in preparation for a nonconference series Dec. 29-30 against Merrimack in North Andover, Mass.
The 20-year-old forward has been with the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League since February of last year. Someone who can play wing — right or left — and more importantly, center, Almquist has 17 goals and 13 assists in 28 games this season.
“We were looking for a kid that had the skillset to play any position," said UMD associate head coach Jason Herter. "He comes in as a centerman, but we were just looking for competition within our lineup.”
Herter has watched Almquist play plenty in the past year against his son, Jacob, who is in his second season with the Cloquet-based Minnesota Wilderness. The Bruins and Wilderness are NAHL Central Division rivals.
“Ben is a guy that can play multiple positions," Herter said. "He’s smart enough to do it, kind of like Kobe Roth. … You can use guys like that wherever you need it. He’s a veteran guy, he’s an older guy. I think he can fit the bill for us.”
Almquist had previously committed to Wisconsin in January 2017 as a Holy Family Catholic High School junior, but he said he decommitted this fall after feeling the Badgers’ love and excitement for him waned the last three years.
He said he felt there were better options out there and, sure enough, the Bulldogs contacted him a few weeks ago, but not for 2020-21 when he was scheduled to finally join the Badgers. UMD wanted the forward now for its pursuit of a third-consecutive NCAA title, to bolster the team’s depth at center. It was a surprising call to get, Almquist said.
“You definitely don’t hear a lot of college hockey guys coming in halfway through the season,” said Almquist, who verbally committed to the Bulldogs last week before tackling a sea of paperwork to be eligible right away. “It was a surprise, but definitely a good one. I was very excited when I got the call.
“I did my homework, took the time to think about it, talk with my family. It felt like the right fit and the best for my hockey career.”
The addition of Almquist — as well as sophomore center Jesse Jacques being a healthy scratch in the final game before the holiday break on Dec. 7 at Omaha — signals that UMD isn’t satisfied with what it has at the center position 16 games into the 2019-20 season.
Meanwhile, a blue line that has had three members miss a total of 17 games to injury — and counting with sophomore Hunter Lellig still out for the foreseeable future with a leg injury — will continue as-is with senior Jarod Hilderman and sophomore Jake Rosenbaum rotating in and out throughout the game to give members of the five-man rotation a breather.
The Bulldogs sit second in the NCHC standings, just four points back of league-leading North Dakota in the race for the Penrose Cup.
A 3-5 nonconference record, however, has the two-time reigning national champs on the still-very-early NCAA tournament bubble, sitting 13th in the premature Pairwise rankings with 18 regular season games with just the two nonconference contests at Merrimack — to play.
Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin, who is currently away from the program coaching the U.S. National Junior Team at the World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic, told the News Tribune’s Bulldog Insider Podcast earlier this month that he’s seen bits and pieces of what the 2019-20 Bulldogs could be, but their true identity hasn’t shown yet on a consistent basis.
“I could sit here and go through a lot of factors. We can bring up injuries, we can bring up this, that and the other thing,” Sandelin said on the podcast. “I think we all need to reset here. I think you've seen our team at its best sometimes and I think you've seen our team at its worst, and we've had a lot in between. Sometimes that's typical in the first half. Sometimes you get on rolls, sometimes you don't. But I think this group's potential with the guys that we have in there hasn't quite been realized consistently. And I'm hoping that through this break mentally, physically, our guys can come back a little bit fresher.”